Image: Corn
Scott Olson  /  Getty Images file
A farmer loads a container with corn grown from genetically modified seeds at a farm near Rockton, Ill. The bioengineered corn offers growers an alternative to spraying  insecticide, but some environmental groups argue that more research needs to be done to prove the products are safe.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/21/2010 5:45:50 PM ET 2010-06-21T21:45:50

To GMO or not to GMO?

No, it’s not a social networking site or a new dance. It stands for “genetically modified organisms” and if you’re like most Americans, you probably don't know what it means or that many of the foods you eat contain GMOs.

Food marketers are trying to change that. By the fall, as many as 200 products — including Nature’s Path, Lundberg Family Farms and Earth Balance — will hit store shelves carrying a new “Non-GMO Project” food label, certifying that an independent lab has tested and confirmed the product contains no bioengineered ingredients.

Whole Foods will roll out an in-store educational campaign backed by Web site articles and newsletters — touting non-GMO foods.

“The public is becoming more aware,” says Libba Letton, spokeswoman for the 297-store chain. “Consumers are wanting to be educated about it and wanting to make informed choices.”

While labeling of genetically modified food is common overseas, especially in Europe, it is practically unheard of in the United States, where big agricultural producers long have argued that such products are no different than traditional crops.

“There is no inkling of anything that says it’s not safe,” says Sharon Bomer, the Biotechnology Industry Association’s executive vice president for food and agriculture.

GMOs first appeared in 1995, and today bioengineered seeds are used in 81 percent of corn crops, 91 percent of soybean crops and 95 percent of sugar beet crops. Genetically modified foods are used in most processed foods and as feedstock for most cattle and chickens.

Unlike traditional crops, genetically modified seeds have been engineered — either by inserting or deleting genes — generally to produce their own insecticide or resist weed-killing herbicides.

Seed makers say bioengineered crops help farmers reduce the use of pesticides, increase crop yields and ultimately benefit the soil. An industry-backed website promotes the value of biotechnology in food, drugs and other products.

Yet consumers are showing increasing interest in GMO-free foods.

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Sales of products with “GMO-free” claims on their package labels grew 11.9 percent to $787 million over the past year, according to the Nielsen Co., which tracks consumer purchases. That’s small compared to the $26.6 billion organic food industry and the $284.1 billion overall grocery store food market. Yet GMO-free is now the fastest-growing health and wellness claim touted by private store labels.

Environmental and some consumer groups argue that not enough research has been done on genetically modified crops to fully understand the long-term health and ecosystem effects. Unlike some other countries, the United States does not require any pre-market approval process for new foods before they're sold.

“There are lots of unanswered questions because there is no requirement for human safety testing,” says Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at the Consumers Union. European animal studies have shown a link between GMO food and asthma, allergy intestinal damage and other conditions. The biotechnology industry refutes those studies, however.

In fact, shoppers should be able to avoid GMOs simply by buying organic food, which by U.S. law must be produced without any bioengineered ingredients. But organic and natural food makers worry about cross-pollination of their crops through wind drift or insects as genetically modified crops have proliferated.

The organic industry’s answer: the Non-GMO Project, a third-party labeling and verification program to test and certify there has been no GM contamination.

The Upland, Calif.-based group, funded by retailers and organic and natural food producers, has created a 40-page list of best practices to avoid GMO contamination, such as labeling and keeping track of tested ingredients and cleaning processing equipment properly.

As part of the program, every ingredient derived from “at risk crops” like corn or soy must be tested prior to use and shown to have less than 0.9 percent genetically modified material.  Food makers can choose among a handful of accredited laboratories for testing.

The project has garnered support from 102 food makers and 447 retailers — mostly independent natural and organic foods stores.

Nature’s Path Foods will be among the first to put the Non-GMO Project seal on the Canadian company’s cereals, snack bars and waffles this summer. The seal will help marketing, but that’s not why the company did it, says Maria Emmer-Aanes, Nature Path’s director of marketing.

“We did it because we’re organic to the core,” she says. The seal is not expected to increase prices of Nature's Path products, which already sell at a premium to mainstream competitors.

Not all organic companies are embracing the non-GMO labeling. Nell Newman, founder and president of Newman’s Own Organics, says the money and effort behind the Non-GMO Project should go toward changing U.S. laws to require labeling of foods that contain GMOs.

“I would like to see the emphasis be placed on the biotech companies that are producing GMOs,” Newman says.

Such legislative efforts have gone nowhere in the past, however.

Certain shoppers are likely to respond to the increase in non-GMO and GMO-free labels, says Denver retail consultant Jon Schallert. Those kinds of labels sell, especially if they provide a powerful emotional connection for shoppers, reducing complex topics to either “good” or “bad.”

“Smart manufacturers will figure out a way to put it on their package,” he says.

Consumer opinion about GMOs varies depending on the poll. The majority of consumers, or 82 percent, said they could not think of additional information they would like to see on food labels, according to a May survey by the International Food Information Council, a nonprofit research group funded by the food and beverage industry.

But other surveys conducted over the past decade by news organizations, Consumers Union and other groups have shown 70 percent to 95 percent of consumers want labeling of GMOs, says Hansen, of Consumers Union.

In the European Union and China, any food that contains genetically altered ingredients must be labeled as such. Kraft, Kellogg’s and other major packaged food brands started using GM-free ingredients in European products rather than label them as GMOs.

Today, few European retailers carry GMO-labeled foods, although shoppers there still buy them when they’re available on store shelves, according to 2008 research funded by the European Commission.

“Companies had fears of losing market share if they labeled the products,” says Greg Jaffe, biotech project director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates for consumers on food and nutrition issues.

Jaffe says there’s no single reason why Europe has greeted GMOs with more resistance than the United States. Observers point to some anti-U.S. and anti-corporate sentiment, the strength of environmental political parties, food safety scares like mad cow disease and more attention paid to food and the environment.

“Their politicians said, 'We don’t want it,'” Jaffe says.

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